It’s never a good thing to lose a player, no matter the sport or the team. It’s even more troubling when that loss comes midway through the season, regardless of the circumstances.
But in the wake of Emmanuel Akot’s sudden decision to leave the program, a case can be made the Arizona Wildcats could end up benefitting from one less player logging considerable minutes.
It helps when the departed player, from a statistical standpoint, had been the worst one among Arizona’s nine- or 10-man rotation.
Coach Sean Miller said Tuesday that senior forward Ryan Luther would most likely replace Akot in the starting lineup for Thursday’s home game against Oregon, though developments in practice could lead to either sophomore forward Ira Lee or redshirt junior guard Dylan Smith getting the nod at the 4.
Who starts, though, isn’t really important when you consider Akot had done so the last 11 games and frankly did very little in that role.
Since taking over for Luther at the 4 on Nov. 29, Akot averaged 4.3 points and 2.9 rebounds in 20.7 minutes per game. In four Pac-12 games, he averaged 3.8 points, 2.3 rebounds and 20 minutes, and his overall analytic numbers are the worst among Arizona’s rotation players, ranking last in box plus/minus.
More often than not, and particularly in Pac-12 play, Akot would start but wasn’t often on the court during key stretches. Those minutes instead were going to Luther, Lee and Smith, who in the four league games are combining to average 19.1 points, 8.8 rebounds and 3.1 assists on 50 percent shooting.
That bench trio each has brought something valuable to the floor in recent games, so it makes sense to try and get them more involved. And based on Miller’s comments, it sounded like that was going to happen even if Akot hadn’t left but now the process has to get sped up.
“These are our circumstances,” Miller said.
Miller said Luther makes the most sense to start because he had previously held that spot and he’s been playing the 4 “about half the game” even as a reserve. He said Luther’s improvement as the season has gone on is similar to what he’s seen in the past from freshmen.
“Once they get a dose of what Pac-12 play is like … they really have a better feel for how everything works at Arizona,” Miller said of Luther, who is shooting 56.3 percent in Pac-12 play. “Giving him an extra 4-6 minutes, I think, could be healthy for his confidence.”
For Lee, an uptick in minutes is much deserved considering how much he’s cleaned up his game. A turnover machine during most of nonconference play, Lee has only one giveaway in the past five contests and is averaging 0.7 turnovers per 40 minutes in Pac-12 action compared to 3.7/40 for the season.
“Ira Lee has played some outstanding basketball,” Miller said. “He was headed in that direction before we went to the Bay Area. He continued to deliver and play really good in the Bay. We’re playing him about 15 minutes a game, and right now he’s earned more minutes.”
Many of Lee’s minutes have been in relief of Jeter, either because of foul trouble or Jeter needing a rest. Miller hopes to get him playing alongside Jeter more, thus putting Arizona’s two best defensive rebounders on the court at the same time.
“Over the last four games and really last month he has cut his turnovers down, is playing a smarter brand of basketball and we feel really good about about the track that he’s on,” Miller said of Lee, who had a career-high 12 points in 17 minutes at Stanford last Wednesday. “What we’re looking to do is get Ira out there just a little bit more. And now we have that opportunity.”
More time for Smith can also help Arizona in the rebounding department. But where he’d be even more valuable is handling the smaller, quicker players that many teams are putting at the 4.
“A lot of teams in the Pac-12 play with a smaller group and that 4 position is really a small forward and sometimes even a guard,” Miller said. “Oregon does that. We’ve experimented with Dylan Smith being in that role already. If you followed us in the Bay, big moments at Stanford and even at Cal we played him at that role.
“What’s deceiving about Dylan is, for our guards, he’s not only our best defensive player, but he’s also our best defensive rebounder.”
Smith’s 17.1 percent defensive rebounding rate trails only Jeter and Lee, who are both at 22.9 percent.
Arizona’s bench has been a major asset this season, averaging 21.8 points, 10.8 rebounds and 4.0 assists per game in Pac-12 play. Those numbers figure to go down with one less reserve in the rotation, but the trade off is the starting lineup should no longer have a non-factor in its ranks.